Conformity: The Power of Social Influences, Cass R. Sunstein

Frank J. Gonzalez
Content Type
Journal Article
Political Science Quarterly
Issue Number
Publication Date
Fall 2020
Academy of Political Science
In the polarized, post-truth, tribal era of politics that we find ourselves in, a book on conformity—how to understand it and take concrete steps toward diminishing it—should (rightfully) be expected to be of great interest to many. In Conformity: The Power of Social Influences, the prolific Cass R. Sunstein delivers exactly this. This book stands out from Sunstein’s other books in its focus on the broad societal implications of social influence. Sunstein grounds his argument in the principles underlying American democracy, and in doing so, he makes it difficult not to become depressed at how distant our current state of affairs seems from that ideal. However, Sunstein offers optimism in the form of a framework for actionable solutions. Sunstein begins with a model of the two major features of human psychology that he says reinforce conformity: (1) the tendency to believe something is true if others believe it is true (especially “confident” others) and (2) the desire for positive social standing and reputation. In Chapter 1, he explains how conformity is frequently harmful because it encourages individuals to suppress their “private signals” (that is, expressions of what they individually think is right or wrong), which decreases the diversity of ideas in a group and ultimately leads to undesirable outcomes. In Chapter 2, Sunstein advances beyond the framework he has traditionally worked within by considering cascades, or the spread of ideas and practices through conformity pressures, which ultimately give rise to social movements. He acknowledges that cascades are not necessarily “bad”—they are likely what led to the rise of the #MeToo movement—but they were also likely crucial to the propagation of genocide during the Holocaust.
Book Review, Psychology, Political Science, Polarization
Political Geography
Global Focus